My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.

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The Great Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee died today. And it got me thinking how I wrote only two months ago about Robin Williams’ passing. In that case, I was mourning the fact that I never appreciated him when he was alive. With Ben Bradlee, it’s different. I don’t feel sad in the same way, because Ben Bradlee had a long life and I was aware of many of his accomplishments. No one is wondering what could have been. But it seems strange to know such a life force is no longer here.

Everything I know about Bradlee comes from All the President’s Men (book and movie) and the Bradlee biography I read last year, Yours in Truth by Jeff Himmelman. He’s a fascinating character to me. A lot of stories being recounted in the wake of his death follow a certain pattern – Bradlee giving unorthodox words of encouragement to a young reporter, with an intimidating yet inspiring air – but I love reading them all. A new one I read tonight was from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who eulogized Bradlee for the magazine and described his encounter with the editor when he was a Post reporter in the 1980s. (“So what’s all this about Moynihan and the booze!”)

I have nothing personal to say about Ben Bradlee, because I never worked for him or even met him. All I know is he made me love journalism because his work brought me to understand what journalism really was. It helped me understand what journalism could do, what it was at its core. He made me nostalgic for a media world I never even lived in, where the newspaper ruled. He vaulted me into a great fascination with the Watergate scandal. Even today, I can’t put a finger on why it captivates me, but I suspect Bradlee’s effect on the story has something to do with it.

It doesn’t feel right to sit here and list all the anecdotes that shaped my perception of Bradlee and made me admire him (I recounted enough of those when I wrote about Himmelman’s book last March), though I could list numerous quotes from All the President’s Men or talk about how Jason Robards thanked Ben Bradlee in his acceptance speech for an Oscar he won by playing Ben Bradlee.

I’ll leave the tributes to people who knew him best, and even though there’s a melancholy air to any remembrance, I feel like with Bradlee it will be more fond recollection and grateful celebration.

Beach Weekend

This weekend, I went to Virginia Beach with a big group of friends. What was billed as a long weekend wound up feeling more like a legitimate vacation. We left Thursday evening on a bus to Richmond. After spending Friday at my friend’s parents’ house there, we drove to Virginia Beach for the rest of the weekend.

Even after only two and a half days there, it almost felt routine. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, head for the beach. Spend all day reading, soaking up good music, deepening old friendships, creating new friendships…and working on covering up awkward tan lines from an old bathing suit.

It was a break from my New York routine that I needed more than I realized. And it was a chance to spend a whole weekend appreciating an amazing community of friends.

A few random tidbits, because I’m still on a vacation high and if I don’t write them down now, I’ll forget them:

Richmond, VA is a really cool city, especially if you’re into Civil War history. Friday evening, we drove around the city checking out notable spots. Driving down Monument Avenue, you pass incredible statues of Confederate notables like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. My personal favorite destination was the state Capitol building and this statue of George Washington, which sits outside it. So elaborate, with so many connections to various figures in early America (hey, Meriwether Lewis).

This song made it onto someone’s beach playlist and now I’m addicted to it.

On our flight back this evening (yep, we took the bus down and flew back to maximize beach time), I flipped through the Sept. 1 issue of the New Yorker and laughed so hard at this week’s fiction: “The Referees,” by Joseph O’Neill. A quick, funny read if you need one. “What does this e-mail even mean? She wants to recuse herself? Who is she, Sonia Sotomayor?”

So now I’m back in the city, unpacking and watching Silver Linings Playbook (It’s become my unofficial summer movie. I play it all the time. Just so dang good.) and thinking about how I don’t just feel refreshed after this vacation. I feel completely reset. Tomorrow morning and the week ahead will bring what it may, but I feel new. And it’ll already be Tuesday.

The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.